Exploring the East African Rift
Driven by processes in the deep earth over millions of years, the East African Rift is slowly tearing the continent apart, producing earthquakes and volcanoes along its 2,400-mile track. A scientific team including Donna Shillington, James Gaherty and Cornelia Class of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory is working in Malawi and Tanzania to understand the causes, the long-term evolution, and the real-time hazards.
Ideally, seismic stations are sited in remote, quiet locations away from any possible cultural noise, especially people, who are very noisy (even if they are not New Yorkers). But other considerations besides peace and quiet are important for a good station, particularly security. As a result, we placed most of our stations in towns near schools, hospitals or town halls, where people could keep an eye on them.
We often attract crowds while installing our exotic seismic gear. Field work with an audience has pros and cons. It’s certainly somewhat distracting to labor and sweat under the sun, tinkering with wires and programming equipment with a big crowd in attendance. Some of the sites are in relatively tight spots, so the curious onlookers occupied much of our working space, making for very close quarters. Several days ago, we installed a station next to the village hall in Ndalisi as a small crowd looked on and an animated town meeting took place next door. Loud passionate speeches inside were matched by loud banging outside as we mounted a solar panel for our station on the roof.
But there are very big upsides. People from the villages where we deployed stations have provided an enormous amount of help with building our sites. We have also had abundant opportunities to tell people what we hope to learn about the active tectonic environment where they live. Continental rifting here gives rise to geohazards such as earthquakes and volcanoes. Because we have tried to locate many of our sites near schools, we particularly hope to communicate our science to students and teachers. At the Matema Beach High School, students peppered us with questions as we installed our gear. Their school is just a stone’s throw from the Livingstone Mountains, the surface expression of a major rift fault that has caused large earthquakes. But our seismic installations admittedly may not be entirely positive; today at Kifule Secondary School, students took a long math exam inside while we were making a racket outside. But hopefully the pros out weigh the cons… Even at Kifule, students burst out of classroom after the test all smiles, so apparently we were not too disruptive.
Driving around the Rungwe volcanic province in the southern East Africa Rift installing seismometers, we have the chance to observe first hand how geological processes in action create the most dramatic forms at Earth’s surface. Looming volcanoes flanked by cinder cones lie along the rift valley, often very close to rift faults. The Livingstone Mountains, the surface expression of a major fault system that bounds the rift to the east in this area, soar over 1.5 km over the valley below, including Lake Malawi (Nyasa).
The remarkable geological structures evident above ground motivate us to look deeper in the earth. We see volcanoes in particular places at the surface, but where are magmas located at depth below the volcanoes and the rift? Likewise, we see dramatic faults that are helping to thin and break the crust at the surface, but how do they relate to stretching of the entire crust and lithosphere beneath this part of the East Africa rift? And how are the magmas and faults related to one another? These are the core scientific questions motivating our study of the rift around northern Lake Malawi (Nyasa). We hope to use data collected during this program, including the 15 seismic stations that we are deploying now around the Rungwe province, to answer these big questions.
The last time we visited the southern part of the East Africa Rift, we were responding to an unusual series of earthquakes in December 2009 that shook northern Malawi. The faults responsible for these events had not produced any earthquakes historically, and thus caught everyone by surprise. The unexpected occurrence of earthquakes on these faults highlights our poor overall understanding of how the African continent is slowly stretching and breaking apart.
This time, we return to this part of the rift system as a part of a more comprehensive effort to understand the underpinnings of this continental rift using a spectrum of geological and geophysical tools and involving a big international team of scientists from the U.S., Tanzania and Malawi. In the coming three weeks, we plan to deploy ~15 seismometers in southwest Tanzania around the Rungwe volcanic province, the southernmost volcanism in the East Africa Rift system. These stations will record small local earthquakes associated with active shifting of faults and moving of magmas at depth. They will also record distant earthquakes that can be used to create images of structures beneath Earth’s surface and map the faults and magmas.
A new study in the journal Nature provides fresh insight into deep-earth processes driving apart huge sections of the earth’s crust. The process, called rifting, mostly takes place on seabeds, but can be seen in a few places on land—nowhere more visibly than in the Afar region of northern Ethiopia. (See the slideshow below.) Here, earthquakes and volcanoes have rent the surface over some 30 million years, forming part of Africa’s Great Rift Valley. What causes this, and does it resemble the processes on the seafloor, as many geologists think?
The study suggests that conventional ideas may be wrong. Past calculations done by scientists predict that the solid rock under the Afar should be stretching and thinning substantially as the continent tears apart; thus molten rock should not have far to travel to the surface. Led by David Ferguson, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, researchers analyzed the chemical makeup of lava chunks they collected from the Afar. They showed that magmas actually came from quite deep–greater than 80 kilometers, or 45 miles, within the earth’s mantle–and formed under extraordinarily high temperatures, above 1,450 degrees C, or 2,600 F.
This implies that magmas are generated by a long-lasting plume of mantle heat. It also indicates that magma must make its way up through a surprisingly thick lid of solid rock, called the lithosphere. This idea has been supported by some seismic images of the Afar subsurface.
Rifting here is fairly slow—one or two centimeters a year, or 0.4 to 0.8 inches, and this may partly explain why so much solid rock persists. As the lithosphere is pulled apart, it does stretch, crack and thin. However, because the process in this region takes so long, the base of the lithosphere has time to cool down by losing heat to the colder rock above. This keeps the relatively cold, brittle lithosphere thicker than would be expected, and counteracts stretching. Sometimes, though, magma suddenly spurts long distances to the surface, and the earth visibly cracks and pulls apart during spectacular rifting events. That includes a series of events that started in 2005, and was closely observed by scientists.
Parts of the rift have already sunk below sea level. In the distant future–maybe 10 million years from now–the process will advance so far that the Red Sea will break through and flood the region. A new sea will open up, whether or not there is anyone around to name it.
In East Africa, earth’s crust is stretching and cracking, in a process called rifting. Here in the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, hundreds of faults and fissures have formed over time. (David Ferguson)
An important force driving the rifting is magma created beneath earth’s rocky outer shell, which has forced its way upward to push apart the crust. This eruption happened in the Afar in June 2009. (David Ferguson)
This crevice opened in a matter of hours, during a sequence of very large earthquakes in September 2005. It formed in response to magma being injected into the shallow crust, and is still emitting volcanic gases. This injection of magma was the largest event of its kind to be observed by scientists. (Lorraine Field)
Fresh lava erupted onto the desert floor preserves fragile surface textures, formed as the viscous molten rock cooled and hardened. Over time, these sharp features will erode away. (David Pyle)
A remote field site within the rift. Afar is one of the hottest and most sparsely populated regions on the planet. (David Pyle)
In a region that is vast, largely roadless and dominated by armed tribes, scientists depend on helicopters to get around, and on local people to act as guides and security guards. The climate necessitates large amounts of portable drinking water. (David Ferguson)
Lavas forming the rift surface cracked apart during an earthquake in 2005 to form this fault. The horizontal boundary between the light and dark area marks the pre-2005 ground surface, and shows that the area in the foreground dropped several meters during the quake. The geology of Afar provides many clues to the tectonic and magmatic process operating beneath our feet. (David Pyle)